What Do I Hold With A Closed Fist?
“If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people” – 1 Timothy 6:2-5
As a Christian, there are things that we “hold with a closed fist” and others that we regard “open handed.” The reality of both causes me and hopefully you to ask ourselves: What, in my expression of faith, have I made essential which is not? How has this caused me to be unloving and divisive towards my brothers and sisters in Christ? How can I work to teach and encourage those around me about the essential truths of the Christian faith, without putting too much sideways energy into the non-essentials?
About 300 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Church was still growing rapidly across the known world. The writings of the Apostles, those who had seen the risen Jesus, were being circulated and taught amongst these new communities of believers. The leaders of these communities spent day and night discussing what it meant to follow Jesus. Some even debated who this Jesus truly was. Many of these ideas being presented seemed contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Because of this, the Church decided it needed to bring together church leaders from around the known world to discuss and determine together the essential beliefs of the Christian faith. We call these councils. In these councils the canon of the New Testament was formed, the direction of the global church was set, and the essential cornerstone doctrines of the Christian faith were determined. These councils were made up of Christ followers from all over the known world who looked different, talked differently, worshipped differently, and gathered differently. Despite these differences, they came together in unity to determine the essentials.
Many of these councils resulted in the formation of creeds. A creed is a way to summarize large ideas in scripture in a succinct and easy to understand way, and in reciting the creed we remind ourselves of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. In 325AD, at the first council of Nicaea, church leaders came from all over to address false teaching being spread amongst the Church. They came up with a creed, which even today is considered the most foundational creed for Christian doctrine. It has been an important part of Christian liturgy since, and tells us much about what is essential belief. A modern English rendering of the Nicene creed is this:
“We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy universal and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
These are the “closed handed” doctrines of the Christian faith. This creed summarizes the essential beliefs of the Christian faith, all of which are presented in scripture. It recognizes that God created everything; that God became flesh and dwelt among us, dying on the cross to save us from our sins, and rose again on the third day; that He has left us with the Holy Spirit, who is God; that He is coming again; and that His kingdom will reign forever.
Throughout the New Testament, the Apostle Paul in his writings encourages us to stick to sound doctrine, and hold tightly to good teaching. He’s encouraging us to major in the majors and minor in the minors. We need to hold tightly to essential and basic truths, while not turning what should be subtleties into essentials. This is why my Southern Baptist, Methodist, and Anglican friends are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We may worship differently and have different beliefs about minor issues, but we can all affirm the same core beliefs. This is also why we don’t consider Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to be Christians, as they can’t affirm some of these basic and essential Christian doctrines. The belief in one almighty God, the divinity of Christ, His death and resurrection for our salvation, and His everlasting Kingdom are what make us Christians.
The Not So Essential
It is important to note what details get left out of the early Church creeds. By their omission, we know that historically the Church has not seen these issues as essential to the Christian faith.
For example, we see that the belief that God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen” is essential. No early church creed, however, specifies the age of the earth, or even mentions it! Believing in a young earth or old earth, then, is not essential to the Christian faith, but is a secondary issue. Early church creeds don’t mention whether or not we are to gather on Saturday or Sunday, sing new songs or hymns, wear shorts or a suit to our gatherings, or receive communion once per week or once per month. No early church creed says “we believe we will vote republican/democrat” or “masks do/don’t keep us safe from Covid-19”. Early church creeds don’t mention when Jesus is coming back, whether or not everyone speaks in tongues, whether salvation precedes or follows regeneration, or the place of the Church in politics . There are many hot-button topics that aren’t mentioned in these early Church creeds, because they’re not essential to the Christian faith. That doesn’t mean these things aren’t important to think about or discuss, but it does mean we shouldn’t cause division amongst one another over disagreements about non-essentials.
Today, I ask myself these questions, and I hope you join me:
What, in my expression of faith, have I made essential which is not?
How has this caused me to be unloving and divisive towards my brothers and sisters in Christ?
How can I work to teach and encourage those around me about the essential truths of the Christian faith, without putting too much sideways energy into the non-essentials?